Intracranial Pressure – what how and why

We’re all going to be hearing a lot about intracranial pressure over the next hours and days, so I thought it would be useful to understand a bit about it. Here we go.

The brain is enclosed in a rigid closed box. Since the volume of the box is fixed in adults, the addition of any extra “stuff” won’t take up more space, it’ll increase the pressure. What kind of “stuff”? Well in this case, at least yesterday, the extra stuff was a blood clot. This clot now has crammed itself into the same snug volume as the brain, kinda like when your kids jump into bed with you. The pressure goes up. Treatment is obvious – take out the clot!

Another “extra” element which can try to stuff itself into the skull is the brain itself. Remember that what we call the brain actuall contains three things: brain tissue, cerebrospinal fluid (or CSF), and the blood volume contained in the arteries, veins and capillaries of the brain. An abnormal increase in the volume of any of these “compartments” can, if big enough, lead to increased pressure. In Michael’s case, what we don’t want to have happen is to see the brain tissue itself swell. This would mean the brain cells themselves are not maintaining their volume, implying a severe level of injury. This kind of edema (swelling) is also harder to treat. Here, one attempts to optimise the flow of CSF and blood return to the heart by nursing the patient 30° head up. The brain needs to be properly perfumed with blood containing the right amounts of oxygen and glucose to maintain healthy cellular metabolism. If the pressure is much too high, the patient will be deeply sedated in order to protect the brain by decreasing its metabolic requirements. Lastly, the neurosurgeon can remove a large flap of skull bone. The “box” is now open, the pressure is now normal, and the swelling now expresses itself as a brain that is actually swollen without many of the deadly side effects of elevated ICP. This extreme measure, regularly carried out with severe head injury, is called a decompressive craniectomy.

Why is elevated intracranial pressure (ICP) bad?

There are at least 3 reasons. First is that elevated ICP means something bad has happened to the brain. This primary injury, whatever it is, has already done damage and that’s of concern. Second, this pressure acts to compress the blood vessels nourishing the brain. The higher the ICP, the worse the blood flow. So there’s a vicious circle: the ICP goes up, blood flow down. The cells suffer from lowered oxygen delivery and start to swell, making the ICP worse. Bad news. The third reason is mechanical. The brain is held in place in the skull by tough sheaths, between the hemispheres, and between the brain and the cerebellum. When the ICP goes much too high, it can actually force the brain to slide under one or the other of these partitions, usually with catastrophic consequences.

Hope this helps!


10 thoughts on “Intracranial Pressure – what how and why

  1. Pingback: Michael Schumacher in Critical Condition! -

  2. Thanks for the information — helps us understand.

    minor edit – in paragraph 3, i think you mean “perfused” not “perfumed” ?

  3. Pingback: Michael Schumacher | Kat Bagshawe

  4. Thanks for posting this. I have Hydrocephalus and have had some fun times (NOT!) due to increased ICP. I also have a rather nice dent in my skull from numerous ICP bolt procedures (If you ever need a human pencil holder, I’m your girl!)
    I’m a huge F1 fan so i’m absolutely gutted that this has happened to Michael, but reading your Twitter updates and this blog is helping me to understand what the Medical professionals are talking about. Fingers crossed for Michael.

  5. Pingback: FIA Formule 1 year 2013 - IVettel - Tussenseizoen '13 ~ '14 - Pagina 127

  6. White on black like this is extremely tiresome for the eyes… The contrast is too much. I get ICP just from reading this 🙂 Hope Schumi gets well soon.

Your turn to speak - write here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s